Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Fletcher Knebel, who co-authored “Seven Days in May” in 1962, followed that novel three years later with another best seller, “Night of Camp David,” a political thriller with an intriguing premise: what would you do if you believed that the President of the United States was losing his mind?
Since I’m convinced we now have a president who is so far off his rocker that that particular piece of furniture is on another planet, I just reread “Night of Camp David” to see how prescient Knebel was 52 years ago.
The protagonist is Jim MacVeagh, a young, junior senator from Iowa who has been tapped by President Mark Hollenbach to run as Hollenbach’s vice-president in the upcoming election, replacing the current, scandal-brushed vice-president. But in a long night of conversation with Hollenbach at Camp David, MacVeagh slowly begins to worry that Hollenbach is crazy. The reasons: Hollenbach plans to introduce legislation that would allow his government to tap anyone’s phone without a court warrant. Hollenbach also wants the United Sates to create a union with the Scandinavian nations, bypassing America’s European allies. If the Scandinavian countries balk, Hollenbach suggests force might be needed. Finally, Hollenbach refers to a cabal of beltway insiders out to betray him and thwart his reelection.
MacVeagh consults a book, “Psychology and Modern Life,” concluding that Hollenback is likely paranoid: “ The individual feels that he is being singled out and taken advantage of, plotted against . . . or otherwise mistreated by his ‘enemies’ . . .many paranoids develop delusions of grandeur in which they endow themselves with superior or unique ability.” Sound like anyone real  to you?
Over the next few days, MacVeagh uncovers more evidence questioning the president’s sanity, but when he shares his concerns with various Washington luminaries, they doubt MacVeagh, and decide the senator is the one who is losing his wits.
With the clock ticking towards a meeting between Hollenbach and the wily premier of the Soviet Union (will Hollenbach reveal state secrets? Or could he trigger World War lll?), MacVeagh finally finds an influential ally, the secretary of defense, who also has had doubts about the president’s mental state.
Knebel’s climax seems rushed and contrived: Hollenbach charms the majority of his cabinet and convinces them he is of sound mind. The president does agree to take an extended holiday, referring to a heart murmur. Then, inexplicably, the next day he announces he is resigning because of his coronary problems. Crisis neatly averted.
But credit Knebel with addressing a serious problem: how to replace an insane president. It’s not easy, as I think we may discover down the road. A scary thought.


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